Spend any time watching Resolve tutorials and you’ll see many different ways in which colorists approach the creation of the same looks. Some create a look with just a few simple nodes. Others build a seemingly convoluted node tree designed to achieve the same goal. Neither approach is right or wrong.
Often what can all be done in a single node is spread across several in order to easily trace back through your steps when changes are needed. It also makes it easy to compare the impact of a correction by enabling and disabling a node. A series of nodes applied to a clip can be saved as a PowerGrade, which is a node preset. PowerGrades can be set up for a certain look or can be populated with blank (unaltered) nodes that are organized for how you like to work. Individual nodes can also be labeled, so that it’s easy to remember what operation you will do in each node.
The following is a simple PowerGrade (node sequence) that can be used as a starting point for most color grading work. It’s based on using log footage, but can also be modified for camera RAW or recordings in non-log color spaces, like Rec 709. These nodes are designed as a simple operational sequence to follow and each step can be used in a manner that works best with your footage. The sample ARRI clip was recorded with an ALEXA camera using the Log-C color profile.
Node 2 (LUT) – This is the starting point, because the first thing I want to do is apply the proper camera LUT to transform the image out of log. You could also do this with manual grading (no LUT). In that case the first three nodes would be rolled into one. Alternately you may use a Color Space Transform effect or even a Dehaze effect in some cases. But for the projects I grade, which largely use ARRI, Panasonic, Canon, and Sony cameras, adding the proper LUT seems to be the best starting point.
Node 1 (Contrast/Saturation) – With the LUT added to Node 2, I will go back to Node 1 to adjust contrast, pivot, and saturation. This changes the image going into the LUT and is a bit like adjusting the volume gain stage prior to applying an effect or filter when mixing sound. Since LUTs affect how color is treated, I will rarely adjust color balance or hue offsets (color wheels) in Node 1, as it may skew what the LUT is doing to the image in Node 2. The objective is to make subtle adjustments in Node 1 that improve the natural result coming out of Node 2.
Node 3 (Primary Correction) – This node is where you’ll want to correct color temperature/tint and use the color wheels, RGB curves, and other controls to achieve a nice primary color correction. For example, you may need to shift color temperature warmer or cooler, lower black levels, apply a slight s-curve in the RGB curves, or adjust the overall level up or down.
Node 4 (Secondary Correction) – This node is for enhancement and the tools you’ll generally use are hue/sat curves. Let’s say you want to enhance skin tones, or the blue in the sky. Adjust the proper hue/sat curve in this node.
Node 5 (Windows) – You can add one or more “power windows” within the node (or use multiple nodes). Windows can be tracked to follow objects, but the main objective is a way to relight the scene. In most projects, I find that one window per shot is typically all I need, if any at all. Often this is to brighten up the lighting on the main talent in the shot. The use of windows is a way to direct the viewer’s attention. Often a simple soft-edged oval is all you’ll need to achieve a dramatic result.
Node 6 (Vignette) – The last node in this basic structure is to add a vignette, which I generally apply just to subtly darken the corners. This adds a bit of character to most shots. I’ll build the vignette manually with a circular window rather than apply a stock effect. The window is inverted so that the correction impacts the shot outside of the windowed area.
So there’s a simple node tree that works for many jobs. If you need to adjust parameters such as noise reduction, that’s best done in Node 1 or 2. Remember that Resolve grading works on two levels – clip and timeline. These are all clip-based nodes. If you want to apply a global effect, like adding film grain to the whole timeline, then you can change the grading mode from clip to timeline. In the timeline mode, any nodes you apply impact the whole timeline and are added on top of any clip-by-clip correction, so it works a bit like an adjustment layer.
I’m previously written about the challenge of consistent gamma and saturation across multiple monitoring points. Getting an app’s viewer, QuickTime playback, and the SDI output to all look the same can be a fool’s errand. If you work on a Mac, then there are pros and cons to using Mac displays like an iMac. In general, Apple’s “secret sauce” works quite well for Final Cut Pro. However, if you edit or grade in Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Media Composer, then you aren’t quite as lucky. I’ve opined that you might actually need to generate separate files for broadcast and web deliverables.
The extra step of optimized file creation isn’t practical for most. In my case, the deliverables I create go to multiple platforms; however, few are actually destined for traditional broadcast or to be played in a theater. In most cases, my clients are creating content for the web or to be streamed in various venues. I predominantly edit in Premiere Pro and grade with Resolve. I’ve been tinkering with color management settings in each. The goal is a reasonably close match across both app viewers, the output I see to a Rec 709 display, and the look of the exported file when I view it in QuickTime Player on the computer.
Some of this advice might be a bit contrary to what I previously wrote. Both situations are still valid, depending on the projects you edit or grade. Granted, this is based on what I see on iMac and iMac Pro displays, so it may or may not be consistent with other display brands or when using PCs. And this applies to SDR, Rec 709, or sRGB outputs and not HDR grading. As a starting point, leave the Mac display profile alone. Don’t change its default profile. Yes, I know an iMac is P3, but that’s simply something you’ll have to live with.
Adobe Premiere Pro
Premiere Pro’s Rec 709 timelines are based on 2.4 gamma, which is the broadcast standard. However, an exported file is displayed with a QuickTime color profile of 1-1-1 (1.96 gamma). The challenge is to work with the Premiere Pro viewer and see an image that matches the exported file. I have changed to disabling (unchecking) the Display Color Management in General Preferences. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it results in a setting where the viewer, a Rec 709 output to a monitor, and the exported image all largely look the same.
If you enable Display Color Management, you’ll get an image in the viewer with a somewhat closer match for saturation, but gamma will be darker than the QuickTime or the video monitor. If you disable this setting, the gamma will be a better match (shadows aren’t crushed); however, the saturation of reds will be somewhat enhanced in the Premiere Pro viewer. It’s a bit of a trade-off, but I prefer the setting to be off.
Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve
Resolve has multiple places that can trip you up. But I’ve found that once you set them up, the viewer image will be a closer match to the exported file and to the Rec 709 image than is the case for Premiere Pro. There are three sections to change. The first is in the Project Settings pane (gear menu). This is the first place to start with every new Resolve project. Under Color Management, set the Timeline color space to Rec. 709 (Scene). I’ve experimented with various options, including ACES. Unfortunately the ongoing ACES issue with fluorescent color burned me on a project, so I’ll wait until I really have a need to use ACES again. Hopefully it will be less of a work-in-progress then. I’ve gone back to working in Rec. 709, but new for me is to use the Scene variant. I also turn on Broadcast Safe, but use the gentler restricted range of -10 to -110.
The next adjustment is in Resolve Preferences. Go to the General section and turn on: Use 10-bit precision in viewers, Use Mac display color profiles, and Automatically tag Rec. 709 Scene clips as Rec. 709-A. What this last setting does is make sure the exports are tagged with the 1-1-1 QuickTime color profile. If this is not checked, the file will be exported with a profile of 1-2-1 (2.4 gamma) and look darker when you play it to the desktop using QuickTime Player.
The last setting is on the Deliver page. Data levels can be set to Auto or Video. The important thing is to set the Color Space Tag and Gamma Tag to Same as Project. By doing so, the exported files will adhere to the settings described above.
Making these changes in Premiere Pro and Resolve gives me more faith in what I see in the viewer of each application. My exports are a closer match with fewer surprises. Is it a perfect match? Absolutely not. But it’s enough in the ballpark for most footage to be functional for editing purposes. Obviously you should still make critical image and color adjustments using your scopes and a calibrated reference display, but that’s not always an option. Going with these settings should mean that if you have to go by the computer screen alone, then what you see will be close to what you get!
YouTube influencers are a big part of the content creation landscape today. Their videos cover many, different niches and often have a surprisingly large base of followers. I take a look at YouTube, aviation, and the use of Final Cut Pro to post-produce these videos (FCP.co).
Unless you’ve delivered master files for broadcast, you might not be as tuned into meeting delivery specs, especially when it comes to the perceived loudness levels of your mix. I discuss working with audio in Final Cut Pro to mix and master at optimal levels (FCP.co).
The folks at Color Trix have come up with an ingenious solution to augment Final Cut Pro’s camera raw support. The new Color Finale Transcoder adds additional camera raw formats, notably Blackmagic RAW. Check out my review of the software (FCP.co).
In the “good old days” of post, directors, cinematographers, and clients would all judge final image quality in an online edit or color correction suite using a single, calibrated reference monitor. We’ve moved away from rooms that look like the bridge of the Enterprise into more minimalist set-ups. This is coupled with the current and possibly future work-from-home and general remote post experiences. Without everyone looking at the same reference display, it becomes increasingly difficult to be sure that what everyone sees is actually the proper appearance of the image. For some, clients rarely comes into the suite anymore. Instead, they are often making critical judgements based on what they see on their home or work computers and/or devices.
The lowest common denominator
Historically, a common item in most recording studios was a set of Auratone sound cubes. These small, single speaker monitors, which some mixers dubbed “awful-tones,” were intended to provide a representation of the mix as it would sound on radios and cheaper hi-fi audio set-ups. TV show re-recording mixers would also use these to check a mix in order to hear how it would translate to home TV sets.
Today, smart phones and tablets have become the video equivalent of that cheap hi-fi set-up. Generally that means Apple iPhones or iPads. In fact, thanks to Apple’s color management, videos played back on iPads and iPhones do approximate the correct look of your master file. As editors or colorists, we often ask clients to evaluate the image on an Apple device, not because they are perfect (they aren’t), but rather because they are the best of the many options out in the consumer space. In effect, checking against an iPhone has become the modern video analog of the Auratone sound cubes.
Apple color management
Apple’s color management includes several techniques that are helpful, but can also trip you up. If you are going to recommend that your clients use an iPhone, iPad, or even on iMac to judge the material, then you also want to make sure they have correctly set up their device. This also applies to you, the editor, if you are creating videos and only making judgements on an iMac (or XDR) display, without any actual external video (not computer) display.
Apple computers enable the use of different color profiles and the ability to make adjustments according to calibration. If you have a new iMac, then you are generally better off leaving the color profile set to the default iMac setting instead of fiddling with other profiles. New Apple device displays are set to P3 D65 color with a higher brightness capacity (up to 500 nits – more with XDR). You cannot expect them to perfectly reproduce an image that looks 100% like a Rec 709 100 nits TV set. But, they do get close.
I routinely edit/grade with Media Composer, Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Final Cut Pro on iMacs and iMac Pros. Of these four, only Final Cut Pro shows an image in the edit viewer window that is relatively close to the way that image appears on the video output to a monitor. This is thanks to Apple’s color management and the broader Apple hardware/software ecosystem. The viewer image for the other three may look darker, be more saturated, have richer reds, and/or show more contrast.
Once you get past the color profile (Mac only), then most Apple devices offer two or three additional user controls (depending on OS version). Obviously there’s brightness, which can be manual or automatic. When set to automatic, the display will adjust brightness based on the ambient light. Generally auto will be fine, unless you really need to see crucial shadow detail. For example, the pluge portion of a test pattern (darkest gray patches) may not be discernible unless you crank up the brightness or are in a dark room.
Nevertheless, they do have a pleasing effect, because these features make the display warmer or cooler based on the time of day or the color temperature of the ambient light in the room. Typically the display will appear warmer at night or in a dimmer room. If you are working with a lot of white on the screen, such as working with documents, then these modes do feel more comfortable on your eyes (at least for me). However, your brain adjusts to the color temperature shift of the display when using something like True Tone. The screen doesn’t register in your mind as being obviously warm.
If you are doing anything that involves judging color, the LAST thing you want to use is True Tone or Night Shift. This applies to editing, color correction, art, photography, etc. It’s important to note that these settings only affect the way the image is displayed on the screen. They don’t actually change the image itself. Therefore, if you take a screen grab with True Tone or Night Shift set very cool or warm, the screen grab itself will still be neutral.
In my case, I leave these off for all of the computers I use, but I’m OK with leaving them on for my iPhone and iPad. However, this does mean I need to remember to turn the setting off whenever I use the iPhone or iPad to remotely judge videos. And there’s the rub. If you are telling your client to remotely judge a video using an Apple device – and color is part of that evaluation – then it’s imperative that you ask them (and maybe even teach them how) to turn off those settings. Unless they are familiar with the phenomena, the odds are that True Tone and/or Night Shift has been enabled on their device(s) and they’ve never thought twice about it simply because the mind adjusts.
QuickTime Player is the default media player for many professionals and end users, especially those using Macs. The way QuickTime displays a compatible file to the screen is determined by the color profile embedded into the file metadata. If I do a color correction session in Resolve, with the color management set to Rec 709 2.4 gamma (standard TV), then when I render a ProRes file, it will be encoded with a color profile of 1-2-1 (the 2 indicates 2.4 gamma).
If I export that same clip from Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro (or re-encode the Resolve export through one of those apps) the resulting ProRes now has a profile of 1-1-1. The difference through QuickTime Player is that the Resolve clip will look darker in the shadows than the clip exported from FCP or Premiere Pro. Yet both files are exactly the same. It’s merely how QuickTime player displays it to the screen based on the metadata. If I open both clips in different players, like Switch or VLC, which don’t use this same metadata, then they will both appear the same, without any gamma shift.
How should one deal with such uncertainties? Obviously, it’s a lot easier to tackle when everyone is in the same room. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury that may become totally obsolete. It already has for many. Fortunately most people aren’t as sensitive to color issues as the typical editor, colorist, or DP. In my experience, people tend to have greater issues with the mix than they do with color purity. But that doesn’t preclude you from politely educating your client and making sure certain best practices are followed.
First, make sure that features like True Tone and Night Shift are disabled, so that a neutral image is being viewed. Second, if you use a review-and-approval service, like frame.io or Vimeo, then you can upload test chart image files (color bars, grayscale, etc). These may be used whenever you need to check the image with your client. Is the grayscale a neutral gray in appearance or is it warmer or cooler? Can you see separation in the darkest and brightest patches of these charts? Or are they all uniformly black or white? Knowing the answers will give you a better idea about what the client is seeing and how to guide them to change or improve their settings for more consistent results.
Finally, if their comments seem to relate to a QuickTime issue, then suggest using a different player, such as Switch (free with watermarks will suffice) or VLC.
The brain, eyes, and glasses
Some final considerations… No two people see colors in exactly the same way. Many people suffer from mild color blindness, i.e. color vision deficiencies. This means they may be more or less sensitive to shades of some colors. Eye glasses affect your eyesight. For example, many glasses, depending on the coatings and material, will yellow over time. I cannot use polycarbonate lenses, because I see chromatic aberration on highlights wearing this material, even though most opticians and other users don’t see that at all. CR-9 (optical plastic) or glass (no longer sold) are the only eyeglass materials that work for me.
If I’m on a flight in a window seat, then the eye closest to the window is being bombarded with a different color temperature of light than the eye towards the plane’s interior. This can be exacerbated with sunglasses. After extended exposure to such a differential, I can look at something neutral and when I close one eye or the other, I will see the image with a drastically different color temperature for one eye versus the other. This eventually normalizes itself, but it’s an interested situation.
Building on the heels of the previous post, I’d like to cover five simple steps to follow when performing basic color correction, aka “grading,” in Final Cut Pro X. Not every clip or project will use all of these, but apply the applicable steps when appropriate.
Step 1. LUTs (color look-up tables)
There are technical and creative LUTs. Here we are talking only about technical camera LUTs that are useful when your footage was recorded in a log color space. These LUTs convert the clip from log to a display color space (REC 709 or other) and turn the clip’s appearance from flat to colorful. Each manufacturer offers specific LUTs for the profile of their camera models.
Some technical LUTs are already included with the default FCPX installation and can be accessed through the settings menu in the inspector. Others must be downloaded from the manufacturer or other sources and stored elsewhere on your system. If you don’t see an appropriate option in the inspector, then apply the Custom LUT effect and navigate to a matching LUT stored on your system.
Step 2. Balance Color
Next, apply the Balance Color effect for each clip. This will slightly expand the contrast of the clip and create an averaged color balance. This is useful for many, but not all clips. For instance, a clip shot during “golden hour” will have a warm, yellow-ish glow. You don’t want that to be balanced neutral. You have no control over the settings of the Balance Color process, other than to pick between Automatic and White Balance. Test and see when and where this works to your advantage.
Note that this works best for standard footage without a LUT or when the LUT was applied through the inspector menu. If the LUT was applied as a Custom LUT effect, then Balance Color will be applied ahead of the Custom LUT and may yield undesirable results.
Step 3. Color correction – color board, curves, or color wheels
This is where you do most of the correction to alter the appearance of the clip. Any or all of FCPX’s color correction tools are fine and the tool choice often depends on your own preference. For most clips it’s mainly a matter of brightening, expanding contrast, increasing or decreasing saturation, and shifting the hue offsets of lows (shadow area), midrange, and highlights. What you do here is entirely subjective, unless you are aiming for shot-matching, like two cameras in an interview. For most projects, subtlety is the key.
Step 4. Luma vs Sat
It’s easy to get carried away in Step 3. This is your chance to reign it back in. Apply the Hue/Sat Curves tool and select the Luma vs Sat Curve. I described this process in the previous post. The objective is to roll off the saturation of the shadows and highlights, so that you retain pure blacks and whites at the extreme ends of the luminance range.
Step 5. Broadcast Safe
If you deliver for broadcast TV or a streaming channel, your video must be legal. Different outlets have differing standards – some looser or stricter than others. To be safe, limit your luminance and chrominance levels by applying a Broadcast Safe effect. This is best applied to an adjustment layer added as a connected clip at the topmost level above the entire sequence. Final Cut Pro X does not come with an adjustment layer Motion template title, but there are plenty available for download.
Apply the Broadcast Safe effect to that adjustment layer clip. Make sure it’s set to the color space that matches your project (sequence) setting (typically Rec 709 for HD and 4K SDR videos). At its default, video will be clipped at 0 and 100 on the scopes. Move the amount slider to the right for more clipping when you need to meet more restrictive specs.
These five steps are not the end-all/be-all of color correction/grading. They are merely a beginning guide to achieve quick and attractive grading using Final Cut Pro X. Test them out on your footage and see how to use them with your own workflows.